Final thoughts on Naomi Klein

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I’ve spent a fair bit of time since the beginning of the year discussing Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, This Changes Everything. Some have suggested, either subtly or not-so-subtly, that my apparent obsession with Klein has become somewhat unseemly. So let me offer a few words in my defence, and also provide something of a “roundup” of what I’ve written over the past year. Here are the posts:

Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein postscript 1
Naomi Klein postscript 2

Then there are my own posts on climate change:

What is a tax not a tax? Carbon taxes vs. carbon prices
The two worst talking points on carbon taxes/pricing
Hobbes’s difficult idea
and finally the syllabus for my course on climate change policy (for those who are interested in what I do consider to be worth reading).

Part of why I talked about Klein’s book at length is just that I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change lately. That included reading a lot of bad books on the topic. But Klein’s book, in my view, is worth discussing in greater detail. Partly it’s because she routinely shows up on lists of top-50 or top-100 global public intellectuals, often in the top 10. So there are lot of people out there reading her work and taking her views very seriously. But it’s also because she has become one of those people, like Noam Chomsky (on the left) and Ayn Rand (on the right), who is incredibly popular with people in high school or during undergraduate, but is almost completely ignored by people with more advanced education – in particular, university professors like myself. And yet those who are doing the ignoring seldom stop to explain why they don’t take her seriously, which leaves people who are impressed by her work thinking that it’s some kinds of a conspiracy or that it’s a political ideology thing – which it isn’t.

I can remember, as an undergraduate, going through my “Noam Chomsky” phase, being completely mystified by the inattention that his views received – I could see various points at which people might disagree with Chomsky, but I couldn’t see why his political views would be so completely ignored, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to explain it. By the end of graduate school, of course, I had figured it out on my own, and had joined the ranks of “people who can’t be bothered to explain what’s wrong with Chomsky’s political views.” Part of the reason I can’t be bothered, though, is that I don’t consider Chomsky to be a particularly malignant force in the world, so I am not troubled by the thought that people are out there being influenced by his work.

The same is not true of Ayn Rand, whom I consider to be much more pernicious. Thus I have, in a couple of my popular books, made a point of discussing Rand, and pointing out some of the problems with her views (in particular, the strong current of Nietzscheanism that runs through her major novels, that leads her to regard, for instance, rape as not just permissible, but as an edifying experience for both parties). Now Klein is obviously not in the same camp. And yet I also consider her to be an essentially malignant force in the world, for rather different reasons. The biggest problem with Klein is that her views just don’t make any sense. So she hangs around all these social movements, trying to produce a book that will serve as a “bible” for these movements, but the most that she succeeds in doing is leading them off into the wilderness.

I once suggested, after having seen Klein and Lewis’s film on worker cooperatives, that they should have spent less time chasing the smell of tear gas and more time reading in the library. This may have sounded like a throw-away line, but the point was serious. Part of it is just that Klein’s modus operandi, when writing books, is almost the exact opposite of mine. I spend about 90% of my time and energy trying to figure out what “the view” is going to be. Most of my time is spent reading and arguing with friends and colleagues. Once I have “the view” worked out, I then spend about 10% of the remaining time collecting “material” – data needed to support specific claims, stories or anecdotes to illustrate arguments, and perhaps an interview or bit of reportage to help enliven things. Klein, as far as I can tell, works exactly the other way around, where at least 90% of the time is spent collecting “material,” and “the view” is thrown together almost as an afterthought.

This is why I find Klein so hard to make sense of. For instance, the book is subtitled “Capitalism vs. The Climate” – but what exactly is the view on capitalism, or its relationship to the climate? Hard to say. My first post was basically a record of my efforts to figure that out, going through the book carefully and charitably, trying to puzzle it out from the various things that she says. It’s not easy going. And it’s not just me either. When I talk to people who like her work, I always ask them what they think her view is on this or that topic. I never get a good answer. In fact often they get it wrong, assuming that she has some sort of common-sense or pragmatic view (like supporting carbon pricing) when in fact she doesn’t. What I most often encounter is just mood affiliation – people share her general sense that environmental problems are urgent, that corporations are sinister, and so capitalism is somehow to blame.

For a long time I was quite mystified by how Klein could be such a tireless advocate for social change, and yet devote so little intellectual energy to the task of determining, or explaining, what sort of change she wants to bring about. It just seemed to me that if you’re going to be a crusader for social justice, you should start by working out a clear concept of what social justice is, you should explain that to people, then you should show how existing institutional arrangements fall short of the ideal. At some point I realized, however, that this approach may seems obvious to me, as someone who is essentially a theorist, but that it may not be as obvious to everyone else. In particular, it’s not the way that Klein approaches these questions. In fact, the way she approaches things is entirely different. There was one sentence in her book that stuck out, and helped me to understand this. It’s around the half-way mark, where she is describing her trip to Greece to check on some protests:

In Ierissos, local residents set up checkpoints at each entrance to their village after over two hundred fully armed riot police marched through the town’s narrow streets firing tear gas canisters in all directions; one exploded in the schoolyard, causing children to choke in class (298).

When I read this, I was struck by the little detail about the teargas in the schoolyard. Specifically, I was struck by how irrelevant it was – or at least seemed to me to be – in a book on climate change. It occurs at the end of a discussion that already seems like a digression – a discussion of local resistance to a planned gold and copper mine in Greece, which doesn’t bear any obvious relation to climate change. (The connection is that the mine is presented as an example of the psychology of “extractivism,” which supposedly also the psychology that is generating the climate crisis.) Anyhow, even if you see the connection that Klein does between a planned gold mine and climate change, the observation about the teargas canister in the school is still an odd one. First of all, from what she writes, it’s difficult to know what happened. Are we meant to believe that the police did this on purpose? Or that they just marched down the street, “fully armed,” recklessly firing tear gas right and left? Klein doesn’t say anything about there being protestors present, so the account of police behaviour she provides is rather strange. Or perhaps there were protestors present, and the police went overboard with the tear gas, lobbing one canister into the school? Hard to say.

But I guess the question that struck me most forcefully, reading this passage, was why she thought this detail was important enough to include. After all, the book is 566 pages long, so it’s not as though it needed padding out. Some schoolchildren in Greece got a faceful of teargas, probably by accident, maybe because the Greek government decided to terrorize its own population. Either way, why do I care (beyond the level at which, abstractly, we are all supposed to care whenever something bad happens to someone, somewhere)? Specifically, why is this in a book about climate change?

In Klein’s view, it is connected to climate change, because – this is my speculation – episodes like these provide her with her basic moral orientation, her sense of what is right and wrong. The reason she is so fixated on violent protest – why she literally flies around the world chasing the tear gas – is that the drama of the noble protestor confronting the fascist police provides, for her, the most tangible embodiment of the struggle of good versus evil in the world. In other words, it serves for her as a point of “moral clarity” – where she knows exactly who is on the right side and who is on the wrong side. And everything else follows from that.

In other words, Klein’s view of social justice starts with two axiomatic propositions: that protestors are good, and the police (or the “forces of repression”) are evil. That’s why the story about the tear gas in the schoolyard is relevant. It’s to remind us all – in case we had forgotten, or were not already persuaded – that the police are evil. So what Klein is witnessing, when she attends these protests, is literally the struggle of good versus evil. She then attempts to construct a broader worldview, and a more elaborate view of social justice, based upon those two axiomatic propositions. This involves a great deal of bricolage – basically, she takes all the things that protestors are demanding, and tries to stick them all together into some kind of a coherent view, or set of demands. The problem, of course, is that people demand all sorts of things, some of which are reasonable, some of which aren’t, not all of which are compatible, and certainly not all of which are “good.” So the view that Klein comes up with, in the end, involves a great deal of hand-waving to avoid contradictions – which is what makes people like me crazy.

On the other hand, seeing that this is her method helps to explain why Klein is extremely popular with protestors (as well as people who support protestors, even if they don’t always find time to attend the protests in person). First of all, it’s because the protestors are always the heroes of the story. They can literally do no wrong. Second, it’s because Klein takes their views, and then feeds back to them a version that is just slightly more intellectually coherent and tidy than what she started with. At the same time, she offers the assurance that the whole thing really does makes sense – that all these different people, struggling for all these different things, are actually part of a common effort, aimed at realizing a coherent vision of a just society. She just can’t say very precisely what that vision is… but she knows the general direction in which it lies… and if she keeps writing books, who knows, maybe she will tell us…

So there you have it, my hermeneutic of Klein, or at least the best I can come up with. Now I really am done.


Final thoughts on Naomi Klein — 17 Comments

  1. Very well put. Your commentary on Klein’s activism speaks to what I think is a larger problem in Canadian politics-namely, that many activists frequently don’t seem to put as much thought as they should in how they can and should engage with the larger public and get their message accepted by society as a whole.

    It’s one thing, for instance, to criticize colonialist, patriarchal, homophobic or other types of attitudes and structures, but how receptive is the larger society when many of its people might be attacked with these adjectives? How do you go about convincing someone who’s inclined to vote for Stephen Harper that there is in fact a solid base for Aboriginal constitutional rights, going all the way back to the Royal Proclamation?

    Too often it seems like many activists are comfortable with demonizing anyone who dares to disagree with them, without even trying to reach out to a broader audience. I wonder if that hasn’t been one of the major reasons for the success of the gay rights movement-showing that what they’re advocating for isn’t actually a threat, that all they’re advocating for is the same rights as heterosexual couples, and winning sympathy and support from the larger community.

    Contrast this to the approach that some activists took as documented by Richard Gwyn in “Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Canadian”, wherein various activists and academics would viciously demonize anyone who didn’t toe the line or otherwise show sufficient commitment. It’s perhaps not an accident that the backlashes against such movements have some of the biggest support out there.

  2. Re.: “It just seemed to me that if you’re going to be a crusader for social justice, you should start by working out a clear concept of what social justice is, you should explain that to people, then you should show how existing institutional arrangements fall short of the ideal.”

    A clear and succinct statement of why Rawlsian (or at least Rawlsian-ish) ideal theory is important and necessary for thinking clearly about, and making progress with respect to, social justice. This is, very roughly, a one-sentence version A.J. Simmon’s 2010 article in P&PA.

    An interesting piece overall. I may use it in my political philosophy graduate seminar (to accompany the Simmons article). Thanks.

  3. This was interesting. Although one might say that ideologically I’m roughly “on Klein’s side”, I’ve always had somewhat similar doubts about her stuff. Although I do think that the basic concept of “disaster capitalism” has a surprising amount of resonance, cropping up in events time and again.

    I must confess myself curious about the explanation you can’t be bothered to give about Chomsky. I suppose I will have to learn, as Inigo Montoya did, to live with disappointment.

  4. In the same vein as Purple Library Guy’s comment, please do a post on why Chomsky is ignorable. You can’t tease us by saying you figured it out on your own and then not share your revelation!

  5. I feel like trying to find a connection between institutionalized greed and environmental disaster, although I don’t need to take sides in a crusade in favour of ‘good’ against ‘evil’ as Klein is depicted to have done. (I frankly have not read her.) Combating the wrong is not necessarily taking part in a crusade, as Gandhi has shown the modern world. So, the basic truth — not an axiom — missing here is that there is the need of greed management, apart from the structural, legal setting, at the micro as well as the macro levels. The issue of economic gain and wealth management, backed by power, goes hand in hand with environmental considerations. When the text book theories, political and ethical, fail, we need to be humble enough to look for solutions of devastating ethical problems with clear, open minds making room for further reaches of secular reason. We expect our Senators, of diverse colours, to refrain from adopting ethically questionable ways, not constrained by legal measures, which after all are not deterrent enough, but from self-restraint where dignity lies, while bullying at schools and shooting on streets cease to be rampant. The weapon of aggressive campaigning that new immigrants are fast to pick up in the new soil are better put to restrained, mature use, not jeopardizing the existing system, including in the area of education, which had attracted them to their country of choice.

  6. eco-anti-capitalism

    1. capitalism is the snazziest way to get wealthy

    2. wealthy, large economies emit more greenhouse gases than poorer counterparts

    eco-anti-capitalist political economy

    1. capitalism is the name of the whole system, but it’s also the name of all of the local bigs, and environment is the name of the whole system, but it is also the name of the local smalls

    2. the local struggles already exist, and they can use common photogenic forms

    3. the whole system generates a lot of results that everyone likes

    4. the whole system includes a lot of components that lots of people dislike, for lots of local reasons and some systemic reasons, and so generates a lot of local sites of struggle

    5. each component of the system tries to reduce its own self-aware constituency so as to cut costs

    6. the consequences of global warming will arrive in the future. by the time they arrive in the plebian conscience, opportunities will have expired. she is using found footage from tangentially related protests in the present to represent our grandchildren in the future

    7. she commandeers the cultural capital of various unrelated struggles and sympathetic figures for use by eco-politics. she may recruit lots of people to eco-political mood affiliations without stating explicitly which kinds of reductions most middle class folks could expect to face under a sufficient stern carbon tax or piecemeal regulation

    8. the problem is time-sensitive. it is not clear that the inefficiencies her affiliates impose will b harder than global warming to unravel

    as self-appointed referee

    1. your goals seem cool and your methods seem to have a well-connected academic constituency, but do not appear to b going very fast

    2. in correctly identifying emissions as a collective action problem, u choose a technically rational solution, which seems politically less rational because the acting collective is, in this case, large and instrumentally rational

    3. she is dividing that collective and setting it against digestible, native grievances wherein everyone knows what victory looks like, often because they’re defending existing conditions

    4. her methods do not seem to b mutually exclusive with yours

    5. her “bad cop” might bring denier-liberals and denier-conservatives to bargain with eco-liberals

    carbon taxes and regulations professionalize eco-anti-capitalist violence, entrust it to the tax man, bring it predictably to bear on investment decisions, allow price signals to arbitrate the merits of the various parties to disputes. you think we can demonstrate the rationality of our priorities, and of a method for their application to economic behavior, and so enlist the violent potential energy of the state. she thinks we need to violently deter some economic behavior, to demonstrate to the state that it needs to form a more rational application of our priorities so that we get out of the streets

    in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and the UK the skeptical enlightenment may persist so that the best argument wins, but in the US (and Europe), things seem much more Heidegerrian, so I fear that Kleinism is necessary

    • An obvious reason would be that adopting radical views like Chomsky’s would torpedo an academic’s career. Can anyone shed some light on other reasons? Or does Heath believe Chomsky is factually wrong on certain things?

  7. The Leap Manifesto is hilarious. She says that Canada can be powered on Green energy and everyone can make more money. So, somehow, we would produce less energy but produce more wealth.

    The funny thing about her and most ‘sustainable’ (I hate this word now) energy proponents is that they talk a big game about solar, wind, etc. in terms of reducing carbon intensive energy, but are completely silent when it comes to nuclear power, because, well it’s nuclear and faulty counter cultural thinking sets in.

  8. Also, the tear gas thing isn’t surprising. The left spends so much time demonizing capitalism, corporations, conservatives and anything remotely right of centre, that to disagree with them means, to them, that you are a bad person.

  9. You didn’t realize your blog came with a suggestion box, did you? Chomsky post +1.

  10. Chomsky discussion request also! I’m curious where else you see that gap between popular and academic perceptions of who’s really brilliant.

    This climate change/Naomi Klein series, and your recent posts defining the political “centre-____”, have articulated aspects of the well-meaning progressive anti-capitalist activist perspective that have long irritated me. Keep up the good work!